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Sex ads website Backpage shut down by U.S. authorities

Sex ads website Backpage shut down by U.S. authorities

Postby smix » Sat Apr 07, 2018 2:24 am

Sex ads website Backpage shut down by U.S. authorities
Reuters

URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa- ... SKCN1HD2QP
Category: Politics
Published: April 6, 2018

Description: WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. law enforcement agencies have seized the sex marketplace website Backpage.com as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to a posting on the Backpage website on Friday. Groups and political leaders working to end forced prostitution and child exploitation celebrated the shutdown of Backpage, a massive ad marketplace that is primarily used to sell sex. But some internet and free speech advocates warned the action could lead to harsh federal limits on expression and the press. The website posting said U.S. attorneys in Arizona and California, as well as the Justice Department’s section on child exploitation and obscenity and the California and Texas attorneys general had helped shut down the website. The Justice Department said late on Friday that a court in Arizona ruled the case remains sealed, which puts any legal information under wraps. In the posting about the seizure, the department had originally said more information would be made public on Friday evening. A Phoenix FBI official said that there was “law enforcement activity” at the Sedona, Arizona home of Michael Lacey, one of the founders of Backpage, but referred further inquiries to the Justice Department. Reuters was unable to reach representatives of Backpage for comment. “Today, Backpage was shutdown. It’s a huge step. Now no child will be sold for sex through this website,” tweeted Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Heitkamp helped draft legislation passed by the Senate last month that makes it easier for state prosecutors and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep sex trafficking and exploitative materials off their platforms..President Donald Trump will sign the bill into law next week, said Heitkamp. The legislation, featured prominently in the popular Netflix documentary “I am Jane Doe,” amends the Communications Decency Act, which has shielded website operators from state criminal charges or civil liability if they facilitate sex ads or prostitution. “Shutting down the largest online U.S. marketplace for sex trafficking will dramatically reduce the profitability of forcing people into the commercial sex trade, at least in the short term,” said Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, an international anti-slavery group that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline. There would be “a dramatic shift in the marketplace starting tonight,” he added. Backpage and advocacy groups say the ads are free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution. Backpage has affiliates across the country and around the world, and by 2014 brought in annual revenue of $135 million, the New York Times has reported. The Supreme Court in January 2017 refused to consider reviving a lawsuit against Backpage that was filed by three young women, who accused it of facilitating their forced prostitution. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has told Congress that nearly three quarters of the cases submitted to the center relate to ads posted on the site. The state of California has said that 90 percent of the site’s income were attributable to “adult ads.” In 2016, Texas and California authorities raided the company’s Dallas headquarters and arrested chief executive Carl Ferrer and other former company executives on pimping-related charges. The judge in the case ruled the website was protected by the First Amendment, and it was not liable for the speech of third parties.



Backpage.com founders, others indicted on prostitution-related charges
Reuters

URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa- ... SKBN1HG2ZZ
Category: Politics
Published: April 9, 2018

Description: WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Seven people employed by the sex ad website Backpage.com, including its founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were charged in a 93-count indictment unsealed on Monday that included among the accusations knowingly facilitating prostitution. The indictment, which also includes money laundering charges, was made public after Backpage.com and its affiliated websites were seized on Friday by U.S. federal law enforcement authorities and taken off the internet. Attorneys for Lacey could not be immediately reached, and the public court docket had not yet listed any counsel for Larkin. “For far too long, Backpage.com existed as the dominant marketplace for illicit commercial sex, a place where sex traffickers frequently advertised children and adults alike,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “But this illegality stops right now.” Lawmakers and law enforcement officials have long been working to crack down on the website, which was used primarily to sell sex and was the second largest classified ad service in the United States after Craigslist. Backpage and some advocacy groups have argued that the ads on the site were free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution. The unsealed indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in Arizona, lays out details concerning 17 alleged victims, including both adults and minors as young as 14 years old, who were trafficked on the site. In one case, a customer murdered one of the victims and attempted to burn her corpse, an official from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona said. Later, when the victim’s father tried to have his daughter’s pictures and ads taken down, the website did not immediately comply, according to the official. In addition to charging Larkin and Lacey, the indictment also charged Backpage.com’s executive vice president Scott Spear, its chief financial officer John “Jed” Brunst, its sales and marketing director Dan Hyer, operations manager Andrew Padilla and its assistant operations manager Joyce Vaught. The court records did not yet list any attorneys for Spear, Brunst, Hyer or Padilla, and an attorney for Vaught could not immediately be reached. In the indictment, the U.S. Justice Department accuses Backpage of earning $500 million in prostitution-related revenue since its inception in 2004, and of money laundering that entailed routing funds through seemingly unrelated entities, wiring money in and out of foreign accounts and converting it into and out of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Backpage associates were also actively involved in editing ads and advising on how they should be worded, according to the indictment. Prosecutors also alleged that the website’s employees sought to actively mislead the public about its sincerity of efforts to prevent prostitution ads. The indictment said that in private, Lacey “bragged about the company’s contributions to the prostitution industry, writing in one internal document ‘Backpage is part of the solution.’” The indictment relies on the same law used in a similar case in California several years ago against the founder of MyRedbook.com, who pleaded guilty to charges that the website hosted ads largely posted by prostitutes. A Justice Department official said the case against Backpage does not rely on sex trafficking charges, but rather on charges connected to prostitution, which are easier to prosecute. To prove sex trafficking, prosecutors would need to show each individual ad either involved a minor, or featured an adult who was selling sex through force or coercion. Last month, Congress passed legislation that makes it easier for state prosecutors and sex-trafficking victims to sue website operators that facilitate online sex trafficking. The bill, which President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law this week, amends the Communications Decency Act, which largely shielded website operators from state criminal charges or civil liability if they were facilitating sex ads or prostitution. Efforts to get that law changed were featured prominently in a Netflix documentary called “I am Jane Doe.”



Backpage chief pleads guilty, will cooperate in prostitution case
Reuters

URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa- ... SKBN1HK03I
Category: Politics
Published: April 13, 2018

Description: LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Backpage.com’s chief executive has pleaded guilty to state and federal charges stemming from a wide-ranging investigation into the sex ad website, agreeing as part of a deal with prosecutors to shut it down and cooperate in the case. Carl Ferrer, 57, entered guilty pleas to conspiracy and money laundering charges in both Sacramento County Superior Court and U.S. District Court in Arizona under agreements with state and federal prosecutors that call for him to serve five years in prison. “For far too long, Backpage.com existed as the dominant marketplace for illicit commercial sex, a place where sex traffickers frequently advertised children and adults alike,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a written statement announcing the pleas. “But this illegality stops right now.” Several people employed by Backpage.com were charged in a 93-count indictment unsealed on Monday that included among the accusations knowingly facilitating prostitution. Backpage.com and its affiliated websites were seized on Friday by U.S. federal law enforcement authorities and taken off the internet. As part of his agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice and with prosecutors from California and Texas, Ferrer has agreed to cooperate in the criminal case against Backpage co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin. Prosecutors have accused the website of generating $500 million in prostitution-related revenue since its 2004 start, and of money laundering by routing funds through seemingly unrelated entities, using foreign accounts and converting it into and out of cryptocurrencies. Lawmakers and law enforcement officials have long been working to crack down on the website, which was used primarily to sell sex and was the second largest classified ad service in the United States after Craigslist. Also charged in the indictment were Backpage.com’s executive vice president Scott Spear, chief financial officer John “Jed” Brunst, sales and marketing director Dan Hyer, operations manager Andrew Padilla and assistant operations manager Joye Vaught.



Craigslist shuts down personals section after sex trafficking bill
Reuters

URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-crai ... SKBN1GZ2WX
Category: Politics
Published: March 23, 2018

Description: (Reuters) - Classifieds website Craigslist has closed down its personals section following the passing of a bill that aims to curb online sex trafficking. “Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline,” the company tweeted on Friday. The U.S. Senate passed legislation on Wednesday aimed at penalizing website operators that facilitate online sex trafficking, chipping away at a bedrock legal shield for the technology industry. The bill passed the House of Representatives last month and President Donald Trump is expected to sign it into law soon.
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Backpage Has Been Taken Down By The US Government And Sex Workers Aren’t Happy

Postby smix » Sun Apr 08, 2018 10:17 pm

Backpage Has Been Taken Down By The US Government And Sex Workers Aren’t Happy
BuzzFeed News

URL: https://www.buzzfeed.com/blakemontgomer ... disruption
Category: Politics
Published: April 7, 2018

Description: The classified ads site displays the message "backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized."
Backpage.com, the popular classified ads website, went offline Friday after being seized and disabled by the federal government. The Backpage.com notice stated that additional information would be provided on Friday at 6 p.m. ET, but later in the evening a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement, "The Court has ruled that the case remains sealed and we have nothing to report today." The statement indicates there is a court case related to the Backpage.com matter, but no other information about it is public. Visitors to backpage.com and backpage.ca were met with a message that stated, "backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division." The site — known for personal adult ads — was the dominant online hub for sex workers to advertise their services. The Department of Justice confirmed the message's legitimacy, but did not comment further. Backpage did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The FBI's Phoenix branch raided the home of Backpage founder Michael Lacey Friday morning, according to local station 3TV/CBS 5. A spokesman for the field office, Glenn Milnor, would only confirm to BuzzFeed News that "law enforcement activity is occurring." Lacey's attorney, Larry Kazan, told AZ Central that Lacey had been indicted by a federal grand jury. However, Kazan said he had not been able to review the charges because the 93-count indictment remained sealed. Kazan did not immediately respond to request for comment. A judge dismissed pimping charges against Lacey, former owner James Larkin, and Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer in 2016. Meanwhile, people who said they had placed ads on Backpage complained that they were not issued refunds or notified of a shutdown. Miss Marla Moon, a sex worker who specializes in domination, told BuzzFeed News she lost $50 when Backpage went down Friday and that, for the past two years, she had spent $50 on Backpage ads nearly every day. She said it's not the first time the site has closed its services without warning and failed to issue refunds. In early 2017, Backpage shuttered its adult ads section, a popular marketplace for sex workers, and Moon said people who had paid for ads in advance were not refunded. The company stopped displaying adult ads in advance of a Senate hearing on whether the site knowingly facilitated child sex trafficking. The notice on Backpage's homepage lists the Texas Attorney General's office as a participating agency. Sex worker Christi Long, 28, told BuzzFeed News she had been arrested at a hotel south of Austin in a sting operation and interrogated about Backpage the night before the site was taken down. Police had responded to an ad she posted on the site, she said. "They asked me 'Do you believe that Backpage is used for sex trafficking?'" Long said. "I told them sex workers use it. I said it was better they find victims of sex trafficking on Backpage than dead in a ditch, which is where they'll find them now that it's gone." "They responded, 'Then Backpage needs to be taken down. We will always be there to find them,'" Long said. Long, who is transgender, said that trans sex workers will also suffer because of Backpage's demise. She's been advertising on Backpage for the past ten years, she said. "This is the only way that I’ve ever been able to have any sort of sustainability. I have a house now. I have a car. I’m able to eat regularly," Long said. "I thought I would always have this, but I don’t any more. I’m not sure how I’m going to get out of this situation at this moment. It's terrifying." The Texas Attorney General's office did not immediately respond to request for comment. Backpage has been under increasing scrutiny over its personal ads. In 2015, major credit card companies stopped processing payments for the site amid allegations from authorities that it was facilitating sex trafficking and prostitution. Some people said they did not see the seizure message despite links to the site not working, likely because the site's servers had yet to update. Craigslist recently took down its personal ads section in response to the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, known as SESTA, saying it could open the company up to “criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully," and that it “can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services." SESTA aims to halt sex trafficking, particularly of children, by restricting what kind of information can be posted on websites like Backpage, where people often advertise sexual services. Critics say it endangers sex workers and may impinge on free speech online.



Craigslist Just Took Personal Ads Offline After Congress Passed An Anti-Sex Trafficking Bill
BuzzFeed News

URL: https://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonov ... ex-workers
Category: Politics
Published: April 6, 2018

Description: This week, Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, which critics say puts sex workers in harm’s way and could even threaten freedom of speech online.
The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) was passed by Congress on Wednesday, and it’s already having an impact. Craigslist took down its Personal Ads section Thursday night, saying the bill's passage opens it up to “criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully,” and that it “can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services.” SESTA’s goal is to prevent sex trafficking, particularly child sex trafficking, by restricting what kind of information can be posted on websites like Backpage, where people often advertise sexual services. But the sex workers who use these sites, as well as organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, say the broadly written bill actually endangers sex workers, and restricts freedom of speech. For now, tech companies aren’t legally liable for the things people say on their websites and platforms. If Trump signs SESTA into law, it could change that by allowing victims of sex trafficking to sue tech companies for allowing content that enabled sex trafficking to stay online. Some groups, like the women’s rights group Equality Now, say that’s a good thing. “We will stand with survivors in holding companies that knowingly sell women and girls' bodies online for sex accountable under the law,” wrote director Shelby Quast in an email statement. Other supporters include the unlikely duo of Ivanka Trump and Amy Schumer. But because SESTA increases the risk of lawsuits, online platforms, especially the smaller ones, will likely be much stricter about what kind of content is on their sites. That’s why, at first, companies including Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Amazon tried to fight the bill, though eventually they gave in, according to the Washington Post. The turning point, according to the Internet Association, a lobbying organization that represents multiple tech companies, was changes to the the wording of the bill that would allow tech platforms to use automated methods for screening and deleting sex-trafficking content without implicating themselves, according to Motherboard. And because SESTA is intended to preventing child sex trafficking, it’s politically fraught for tech companies to oppose it. Still, sex workers say that incentivizing tech companies to remove posts about sex work could endanger both their livelihood and their safety. “With online advertising, people don't have to work on the street, go with strangers into their cars or unknown addresses,” Liara Roux, a sex worker and advocate, told BuzzFeed News via email. Roux argues that the SESTA language around “facilitating trafficking” is so broad that even the sites sex workers use to share information about bad clients or check in with each other could be included. “Even recommending a friend to a safe client, or giving a reference to tell someone a client is safe could be considered facilitating,” she wrote. SESTA critics not only argue that the law will make consensual sex work more difficult and dangerous, but could also make it harder to locate people who are actually victims of trafficking because online records give law enforcement a way to track victims. Erika G, who wished to remain anonymous as she is not authorized to speak on behalf of her employer, is an attorney who works with trafficked women. On Twitter, she told the story of a client she was trying to help, who sometimes, due to lack of money, returned to sex work, missed legal appointments, and stopped communicating. Erika, who declined to share the name of the firm she works with, said that more than once she was only able to to find her client because her contact information was available on Backpage. Beyond the world of consensual sex work, there’s also concern that SESTA signals a broader weakening of laws meant to protect free speech online, and that the exemptions created for content that mentions sex trafficking could be applied to other types of speech. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the bill “a win for censorship.” The American Civil Liberties Union also actively fought against the bill. “The risks to the Internet as the world’s most significant marketplace of ideas outweigh the uncertain benefit of the bill to the fight against sex trafficking,” wrote ACLU national political director Faiz Shakir in a letter addressed to the House of Representatives leadership. Despite amendments, Shakir wrote that the “ACLU remains concerned that the bill, if enacted, will foster an atmosphere of hesitation among online platform providers. This uncertainty will inhibit the continued growth of the Internet as a place of creativity and innovation.” To win a lawsuit under SESTA, sex trafficking victims will have to prove that the website they’re suing “knowingly” facilitated the crime. What company or companies will be the first subject of such a suit remains to be seen. It’s unknown when President Trump plans to sign the bill into law.
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Senate Passes SESTA, Controversial 'Anti-Sex Trafficking' Bill That Could Ruin the Internet and Harm Sex Workers

Postby smix » Mon Apr 09, 2018 1:02 am

Senate Passes SESTA, Controversial 'Anti-Sex Trafficking' Bill That Could Ruin the Internet and Harm Sex Workers
Gizmodo

URL: https://gizmodo.com/senate-passes-sesta ... 1823916411
Category: Politics
Published: March 21, 2018

Description: On Wednesday, the Senate approved a bill that on its face is intended to curb online sex trafficking. However, experts say it will increase online censorship, stifle innovation, and make everyone less safe online. The House had already passed a version of the bill and it will likely become law in a short time. Now, all that’s left is a signature from President Trump. The hapless members of the US Congress are good at piecemealing together legislation that makes it look like they’ve done something but really just confuses the issue. Case in point, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA) has the kind of name that makes it nearly impossible to oppose in public, despite the fact that it could lead to more enabling of sex trafficking online. Originally proposed by Senator Rob Portman, it’s gone through some changes and has been adapted into the House’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) bill that passed in February. There a lot of little details and minor differences to discuss between each version of what the EFF has called a “Frankenstein’s Monster of a bill.” For the sake of clarity, let’s just call it all SESTA since the criticisms are mostly consistent between the House and Senate versions of the legislation. SESTA was prompted by a case involving Backpage.com, in which executives of the site were arrested on charges of pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping. Backpage’s “adult” section was allegedly used for prostitution, however courts dismissed the case based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That little section of the law is one of the most important reasons we have the internet that we do today. It allows companies to avoid most legal liability for content created by others. It’s a big reason social media networks can exist, and it’s also important for messaging, email, comments, and numerous other online services. A Senate committee report found in 2016 that Backpage is likely not eligible for immunity under Section 230 and the company still faces a Justice Department investigation and a renewed lawsuit from sex trafficking victims. But the wheels of justice turn slowly, and at least two powerful factions have supporte token legislation that appears to be doing something about the problem of bad content online: Lawmakers and tech giants. SESTA weakens Section 230 in an effort to give sex trafficking victims greater ability to sue websites and state prosecutors the ability to hold companies criminally liable for user-generated content. Its critics say SESTA will lead some platforms to over-censor content with heavy-handed algorithms because it’s just too expensive to police it with humans and algorithms are bad at nuance. On the flip-side, many companies might abandon moderation altogether in order to ensure that it can never be proven they “knowingly” facilitated the offending material. Lawmakers obviously want to chalk up a win against internet companies as more issues arise around online activity. But tech companies initially opposed SESTA. The Internet Association, which counts Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter among its members, protested the first version of SESTA. But when an amended version appeared last November the group decided that it could live with the bill. Only some minor legal language was changed—such as the phrase “by any means” being removed from the following line: “The term ‘participation in a venture’ means knowing conduct by an individual or entity, by any means, that assists, supports, or facilitates a violation.” But advocates like the Electronic Freedom Foundation said the changes weren’t enough. In a blog post, an EFF lawyer wrote:
As we explained [before], the words “assist, support, or facilitate” are extremely vague and broad. Courts have interpreted “facilitate” in the criminal context simply to mean “to make easier or less difficult.” A huge swath of innocuous intermediary products and services would fall within these newly prohibited activities, given that online platforms by their very nature make communicating and publishing “easier or less difficult.”

The biggest Silicon Valley companies, which seem to have ultimately accepted this legislation as inevitable, have an advantage that smaller companies won’t. They’re able to turn to high-priced lawyers to stave off the lawsuits that will likely ensue. They’re also capable of implementing complex algorithms to monitor their services that a little guy wouldn’t necessarily have access to. This is how SESTA could stifle innovation: The pseudo-monopolies will survive, but new competitors could be priced out or discouraged from entering the arena. Longtime internet activist Mike Godwin used this analogy:
They’d likely face the hard choice of either supercensorship (yank anything users say or post that seems even remotely likely to pose legal risk) or just abandoning the startup project altogether. (Internet-law experts refer to this as “the moderator’s dilemma.”) A would-be Facebook killer wouldn’t be able to compete by being a better Facebook—the best it could aim for is to be a better Prodigy. Prodigy, the original “walled garden” of online services, was an early competitor among online companies, with its forums highly moderated by its staff—you couldn’t post your content publicly on the service without subjecting your postings to screening by Prodigy editors. Unsurprisingly, Prodigy in its original form didn’t do well in the long run competing initially with more open, less moderated services like AOL and CompuServe or, ultimately, with the offerings of the wide-open internet itself.

Facebook is also a good example to use when imagining how big tech might respond to SESTA. The social network is currently embroiled in a data-sharing scandal that is opening the public’s eyes to the fact that the service is a privacy nightmare. One whistleblower told the Guardian that Facebook avoided scrutinizing or auditing how third-parties handled user data because it didn’t want to know. Privacy and security are separate issues from SESTA, but it’s easy to see that Facebook would likely go the route of using extreme filters to avoid human judgment opening it up to any liability. This means that not only would everyone’s speech likely fall victim to the occasional robo-monitoring ax, but it would be harder for the victims of sex trafficking to use these powerful platforms to reach out for help, tell their story, or bring a spotlight to an abuser. An algorithm could easily confuse the language of a victim and a sex trafficker. As Alex Levy, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who teaches Human Trafficking and Human Markets, wrote last year:
The war on Internet platforms is pageantry: a kind of theater designed to satisfy people’s need to identify and fight bad guys without regard to nuance or long-term outcome. But from a tactical standpoint, it is more than a distraction. Censoring these platforms means forfeiting a resource that naturally facilitates the recovery of victims..Section 230 doesn’t cause lawlessness. Rather, it creates a space in which many things — including lawless behavior — come to light. And it’s in that light that multitudes of organizations and people have taken proactive steps to usher victims to safety and apprehend their abusers.

Critics have also argued that sex workers just trying to make a living could be further criminalized and forced out into the streets where violence, drugs, and health risks are more of a problem. There’s little doubt that online platforms are being used for hate speech, terrorist recruiting, harassment, revenge porn, election meddling, and many other crimes. But there are already legal tools available for prosecuting the worst offenders, and Backpage executives could still face consequences. This legislation will too easily force everyday users, startups, and victims to pay the price. And with Section 203 weakened, there’s no telling what can of worms might be opened in the future.



Backpage Has Been Seized by the FBI—Case Sealed by Judge
Gizmodo

URL: https://gizmodo.com/backpage-has-been-s ... 1825057539
Category: Politics
Published: April 6, 2018

Description: The popular classified ads website Backpage was seized on Friday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Gizmodo has confirmed. It remains unclear why the website was seized.”The Court has ruled that the case remains sealed and we have nothing to report today,” a Justice Department spokesperson said. Backpage’s servers were seized as part of a joint law enforcement operation involving the FBI, the US Postal Service, and the Internal Revenue Service. The action was supported by state agencies in Arizona, California, and Texas, the Justice Department said. FBI officials were seen at the Phoenix home of Backpage founder Michael Lacey earlier today. The Justice Department was pressed by lawmakers last year to investigate Backpage after The Washington Post uncovered documents that showed the website was not only in control of sex-related ads, but had hired a company in the Philippines to attract sex-work advertisers away from Backpage’s competition. In 2016, three Backpage executives, including CEO Carl Ferrer, were arrested on pimping-related charges. The case was dismissed, however, after a California judge ruled that Ferrer and his colleagues were not responsible for illegal ads posted on Backpage. Under Section 203 of the Communications Decency Act, website operators cannot be held liable for illicit acts committed by third-parties while using their services. The intent behind the section was to protect newly formed online businesses from being crushed by lawsuits stemming from the criminality of users over whom the businesses had no control. Citing Backpage, House and Senate lawmakers introduced bills this year—the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), respectively—intending to target website operators who, to cite SESTA directly, are “knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating” in sex trafficking online. SESTA was passed by the Senate last month and FOSTA was passed by the House in February, but neither bill has become law. SESTA and FOSTA have been widely criticized by experts who say the bills are likely to led to censorship online and increased violence against sex workers. Sex workers have become increasingly reliant in the past decade on websites dedicated to escorts, as well as online classified pages. Working online help keep sex workers safe, advocates say, by keeping them off the streets and allowing them to freely exchange information about potentially dangerous clients. Sen. Ron Wyden, one of only two lawmakers to vote against the senate bill, noted in floor remarks last month that SESTA wasn’t actually needed for the Justice Department to take action against Backpage.
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